Originally written by me in 2007.
Mega-zoom cameras are fun. Before digital mega-zoom cameras were available, you would have to carry around a bunch of lenses and a camera body to be able to get to 10x magnification, but now you can get a digital camera with 10x optical zoom and over for less than $500 and frequently even for less than $300.
Having 10x or more optical zoom is fun. You can zoom in to magnify far-away objects while staying far from them. But not all mega-zoom cameras are created equal. Some cameras have no image stabilization at all, resulting in blurry images at high magnification levels and/or in dim light. Some cameras rely on increased sensitivity setting (ISO) to increase the shutter speed thereby reducing blur caused by the shake when the camera is handheld.
At the top of the mega-zoom hierarchy are cameras with optically-stabilized zooms. These cameras move an optical element within the lens (some shift the CCD sensor itself) to reduce or eliminate blur caused by shooting handheld. The Canon PowerShot S5 IS is on of these cameras.
I have used many mega-zoom cameras, including the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ8, the Panasonic FZ7, the Canon PowerShot S3 IS, the Fuju S6000fd, the S700 and others.
The mega-zoom cameras are the most fun to use cameras for me. I wanted to try the new Canon PowerShot S5 IS. I bought the Canon S5 IS and after using it and comparing it to other stabilized-zoom cameras, I sold it on eBay (just as the previous Canon S-series models). Although the S5 IS is a good camera overall, it has its shortcomings, especially apparent after using the Panasonic FZ8 and the Fuji S6000fd, which is my current mega-zoom camera of choice.
An Improvement Over the Canon S3 IS?
A replacement for the last year's popular Canon PowerShot S3 IS, the Canon PowerShot S5 IS is a digital camera with optical image stabilization, 12x zoom, 8-Megapixel resolution vs. 6MP, 2.5-inch LCD vs. 2-inch. The camera has face detection and features improved DIGIC III.
Just as the S3 IS, the S5 IS has an articulated LCD screen, uses 4 AA batteries and stores photos on SD memory cards. But it adds ISO 1600 mode.
The monster 12x optical zoom and optical image stabilization work together to give you sharp pictures when shooting handheld and/or at long distances. Only a handful of digital cameras have 12x optical zoom and even less have optical image stabilization that makes 12x optical zoom usable without introducing blurriness when shooting handheld.
The Canon S3 IS was an impressive and very popular camera. The only things I did not like about it were its use of 4 AA batteries, the fact that the filter adaptors were sold separately, whereas Panasonic FZ cameras came with them and the flimsy lens cap, as well as the fact that the flash had to be raised manually (unlike Panasonic cameras where you could just push a button).
The S5 has a hot shoe adapter for external flashes, moving it closer to semi-pro category.
The S5 has not improved in the areas I criticized (ever since S2 IS), but did improve in the area of resolution, LCD size, ISO range. Overall, the changes are evolutionary rather than revolutionary and are similar to changes that were introduced when Canon switched from the S2 IS to S3 IS.
About Canon PowerShot S5 IS
The Canon S5 IS is a 8-Megapixel digital camera with 12x optical zoom (36-432mm in 35-mm equivalent), optical image stabilization with maximum apertures of f/2.7 at wide angle and f/3.5 at full telephoto. It stores images on an SD card in JPEG format.
The camera is only available in black color. It has a 2.5-inch fully-articulated LCD screen. The camera is relatively compact and feels solid, features USB 2.0 connectivity that is fast.
The 12x optical zoom optics features ultra-low dispersion (UD) lens and ultrasonic motor (USM) for fast and silent zooming. In addition to digital still photographs, the camera can record video clips with stereo sound. You can output video and sound to your TV (be it your pictures or video clips) using the supplied audio/video cable.
The S5 IS lets you shoot at the resolutions of up to 8 Megapixels and lets you print enlargements or crop the part of the picture and print it with excellent results. And, of course, it is more than enough for the standard 6x4 prints.
The camera features selectable ISO between 80, 100, 200, 400, 800 and 1600 as well as Auto and High ISO Auto. It also has manual focus (with focus bracketing) in addition to automatic 1-spot focus (the focus spot in auto mode can be moved to any position on the screen by using [SET] and arrow buttons).
The camera has an autofocus assist light for better and faster focusing in low-light conditions. It works well in dim light.
Metering and Exposure
The exposure modes include Program AE, Aperture and Shutter Priority mode, and even full Manual mode. The shutter speed can be set between 15 and 1/3,200 sec with speeds slower than 1.3 sec available in Shutter Priority or Manual mode and operating with noise reduction.
The light metering can be selected between Evaluative, Center-Weighted and Spot (center or AF point). I find Spot and Center-Weighted modes useful when taking pictures of people at distances where the flash doesn't reach in backlight. In Evaluative metering mode, the faces might turn out underexposed, unless you dial some exposure compensation.
In Spot mode, you can set metering to properly expose the face. Also, the Spot metering mode can help you figure out the proper exposure in difficult lighting conditions be metering off the object with known tonal characteristics and then dialing some exposure compensation. The camera even has a live histogram.
The camera has a built-in stereo microphone for recording sounds while filming video clips and a speaker, which can be used for operational sounds or to play back the sounds recorded. The camera can record AVI movie clips at up to 640x480 pixels at 30 or 15 fps with stereo sound.
The camera has a Macro mode as well as Super Macro mode, in which it can focus as close as 0 inches. That's right - zero inches!
Normal: 50 cm (1.6 ft.) - infinity (W)/ 90 cm (3.0 ft.) - infinity (T)
Macro: 10 - 50 cm (3.9 in. to 1.6 ft.)
Super Macro: 0 - 10 cm ( 0 to 3.9 in.)
LCD and Viewfinder
The camera has a fully articulated 2.5-inch LCD with 207,000 pixels that covers 100% of the view. The LCD requires quite a lot of force to flip outward or rotate, but feels sturdy as a result.
In addition to the LCD, there is an electronic viewfinder (EVF). Since it is difficult (and expensive) to make a 12x zooming optical viewfinder and impossible to easily confirm focus in a non-SLR optical viewfinder, the Canon S5 IS has an EVF.
Both the LCD and EVF are fluid, has pleasing colors and good resolution. Both are fluid, even in low light.
I found that the LCD is well-visible in regular conditions, but in sunlight, visibility decreases and you have to use the EVF, which works well in sunlight. The EVF by default is slightly dim.
The power is supplied by 4 AA-sized batteries. Canon includes four alkaline batteries with the camera, but obviously you have to get your rechargeable batteries, preferably NiMH of high capacity and a charger if you plan to use the camera at all as the alkaline batteries that are included don't last long and cannot be recharged. I have used 4 Rayovac 2300 mAh NiMH batteries.
I personally dislike cameras that don't come with rechargeable batteries, unless they are inexpensive. The advantage of using AA batteries is the ease of finding replacement rechargeable or disposable batteries. Also, if you use high-capacity rechargeable NiMH batteries, you can get 450 shots out of the S5 (according to Canon, in reality the number is lower), comparing to about 300 shots I used to get from my Panasonic FZ5 on one battery charge.
The disadvantage is the price of batteries and the charger, the weight and inconvenience of having to deal with 4 batteries instead of one. The S5 IS was already heavier than the Panasonic FZ5 or FZ7 and got even heavier when batteries were loaded. It is also more expensive without the batteries than the FZ8 with its rechargeable battery and a charger.
One thing to note: the camera comes preset to continuous focus and continuous image stabilization, both of which are battery hogs. I recommend that you disable both of them (and switch to focusing and OIS only after the shutter release button is depressed), unless you like and have an opportunity to recharge your batteries often.
The difference between 6MP and 8MP is minimal. For majority of people who only print 6x4 or 5x7 photos and do not crop, there is no difference at all.
After my camera arrived (I bought it for $434), I found it to be well built and have a solid feel. The camera has a SLR-style body and is relatively convenient to hold. Upon arrival, I loaded my four 2300 mAh Rayovac NiMH batteries in the camera, inserted my 512 MB SD card (although the S5 IS comes with a 32-MB SD card, it is too small to be usable) and was ready to shoot.
In the Box
The camera comes with 4 AA-sized disposable batteries, a neck strap, a stereo video cable, USB cable, a lens cap, a 32-MB SD memory card, CD-ROM and manuals.
The camera's operation is fast. The power-up takes less than 2 seconds (mostly taken by the lens extension) and is relatively quiet. The camera focuses very fast as well (under a second), seemingly as fast as the Panasonic FZ7.
The zooming is the most impressive aspect of this camera. It is precise and can be very fast (although slightly noisier than the FZ7's). The S5 IS has variable speed zoom (2 speeds) with faster speed being very fast - you can zoom from wide to full telephoto in about a second. Viva Canon USM (ultra-sonic motor)! And the slower speed lets you fine-tune the composition precisely.
The shutter lag when pre-focused is virtually absent and the picture is taken almost instantaneously. The shot-to-shot delay is a bit more than one second. In high-speed shooting modes, the images were captured at about 2 fps.
Shooting with flash is slower since the flash needs time to recharge. I was surprised to see that the flash recycle time can reach 8s seconds (shooting indoors at f/7.1. At least the screen did not go blank in the meantime, unlike some 2-AA battery equipped Canons of the A-line.
The flash has red-eye reduction modes, which still don't eliminate the red eye completely. No worries - I can fix that in Photoshop.
The image stabilization has several modes: Off, Continuous, Shoot Only, Panning. The camera comes with mode set to Continuous by default, which is a battery hog.
I haven't used the continuous image stabilization as it reduces battery life and, more importantly, produces slightly more motion blur in images in comparison to the image stabilization during the shutter release only. I got good pictures, but still not so good battery life.
I was able to take more than 170 pictures without seeing the low-battery warning.
I liked the manual focus ability. When focusing manually, you see the focus area enlarged to help you fine-tune your focus and you also see the distance markings. Truth be told, I find manual focus rarely needed as the automatic focus works really well.
The camera focuses fast, even in dim light and even at full telephoto. It had no issues in any light indoors.
When friends ask me for camera recommendations without being able to specify the exact usage criteria, I catch myself thinking (and frequently recommending) Canon cameras. One of the reasons is the fact that they (at least currently) simply do not have poorly-designed cameras. Other manufacturers have better (in my opinion) cameras in some specific areas. But as far as the overall lineup goes, Canon cannot be beat.
One of the outcomes of this is the uniformly excellent picture quality of Canon cameras. True, some of them (e.g. small SD-series cameras) have slightly blurry corners. But overall, Canon cameras have uniformly excellent colors, good sharpness and produce images that look good printed.
The S5 IS is no exception. It produces excellent pictures, even though some of them were slightly overexposed for my taste. They are richly saturated, sharp from wide angle to telephoto and have pleasing colors. I really like the sky colors and the way the camera renders clouds.
The image stabilization worked well and let me take handheld photos at full telephoto at 1/100 and sometimes at slower speeds. I also could take handheld photos at 1/10 (and slower) at wide angle. This is much better than the rule of the recommended handheld shutter speeds (1/equivalent focal length) suggests. Without image stabilization I wouldn't be able to take pictures at the above shutter speeds. 1/500 at telephoto and 1/50 at wide angle would be the slowest I could use.
I mostly used the lowest ISO available (ISO 80) and saw no noise. At higher ISO settings, the noise starts to appear. At ISO 200, you can see noise appear in the shadows/darker areas and ISO 400 has quite detectable noise, the ISO 800 features even worse noise, which becomes rather bad and the detail level suffers too. Fortunately, you can avoid having to use it in most situations by simply using a slower shutter speed and/or larger apertures (e.g. F2.7 at wide angle). Image stabilization lets you use those slower speeds handheld without fear of motion blur appearing on your pictures.
But if you have to have a faster shutter speed, then you have to use ISO 400-1,600. Surprisingly, the noise at ISO 800 is not as bad as I expected and ISO 800 photos can be printed at 4x6 size. You can print ISO 1,600 pictures, but I would only recommend it in situations where you have no other choice.
The lens of the S5 exhibits very slight barrel distortion and no noticeable pincushion distortion at telephoto. There is chromatic aberration (CA) to be found in high-contrast scenes, especially at the telephoto end of the zoom. This is despite the UD element in the lens. As is usually the case with mega-zoom cameras, the telephoto shots have slightly soft corners, but nothing major.
Ease of Use
Once you get used to Canon menu systems, they are pretty easy to use. Overall, the eaqse of use is very high and almost reaches my all-time favorite (Panasonic).s
The USB cable that comes with the camera has a label that states that you have to install the software first before attempting to connect the camera to your computer. This is in the worst tradition of Canon - I never had to install any software with my Panasonic cameras.
The USB 2.0 on this Canon is a "real" USB 2.0 High Speed however - the transfer speeds are fast. I also used my memory card reader.
Just as many other recent cameras, the S5 IS features face detection technology. The face detection works surprisingly well, finding faces in the frame, showing you that it found them by displaying focusing rectangles over them, focusing on them and making sure they are focused on. I played with it (I just had to) and discovered that you can defeat it by covering an eye or covering the mouth. Overall, I feel it is a useful technology and a cool one too.
The camera comes with 1-year parts and 90-day labor warranty.
So Is It An Improvement Over The S3 IS?
Although the S5 IS improves on the S3 in some areas (resolution, LCD size, ISO 1,600, face detection), it is still pretty much the same camera. This is not a bad thing. The Canon PowerShot S3 IS was an excellent camera in many respects. You have to decide if slightly larger LCD, higher resolution, face detection and usable ISO 1,600 are worth the difference in price.
You can get the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ8 with 12x optical stabilized zoom by Leica, 7.2MP resolution and battery pack with charger and other accessories for much less (under $290 currently). For my money, I would prefer the FZ8 to the S5. Saving over $100 is never a bad thing.
In any case, I am sticking with my current mega-zoom camera: Fuji S6000fd. It is quite a different camera, but I like it more.
Pros: Build quality, resolution, picture quality, fast 12x zoom with optical stabilization, large LCD
Cons: Expensive, no RAW, uses 4 AA batteries
The Canon PowerShot S5 IS is an excellent choice if you need a camera with 12x optical zoom and optical image stabilization. But you can save by getting the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ8: it is an excellent and inexpensive camera. And you will not have to deal with 4 AA batteries..